07 - me at the time of the Karachi, Mumbai, Tel Aviv adventure 09 - me during the time of the foolish Reggio escapade

What can happen when and if you have the “wrong” kind of face!

 

Looking back now I can see the funny-amusing side of things. At the time it was not so damned funny and not so damned amusing.

 

It all began 45 or so years ago when I embarked on my journalistic career. Charlie Xuereb, a fellow journalist also making his debut in this career, was a feature writer and had written a piece about the Italian Mafia and sought accompanying pictures. Well, there was no Google or Internet then to provide the picture material.

 

However, according to Charlie, I had “the right face” with appropriate Italian/Sicilian features, a moustache and lengthy sideburns. He supplied me with a set of “shades”, a white trilby hat and a black jacket and snapped away. I appeared alongside his article as a “hit man”.

 

The very next day the newspaper’s film critic (the late Fred Barry) rang me and said I was perfect for the part of a “hood” and that I should send my picture to the Italian film director Dino Delaurentis because he would surely cast me in a Mafia film.

 

Well, all that was light-hearted stuff, just jolly good fun. A few years later things were not so jolly.

 

By then I had left the newspaper and taken up HR Management for an international contracting company with electrical and mechanical engineering projects in Libya. Our main recruitment sector for engineers and x-ray welders was the Karachi dockyard area in Pakistan and Bombay (now Mumbai) in India and on one of the recruitment stints I jetted off on a Japan Airlines flight to Karachi via Rome and Cairo.

 

It was the mid-1970s and airline hi-jacking – the forerunners of modern-day terrorism – were at their height. I duly arrived at Karachi at 4am the next morning, grabbed an hour’s sleep and turned up for interviews that started at 8am with our General Manager and Technical Manager who had arrived there a day earlier.

 

In late afternoon, dog tired I thankfully returned to my hotel room at the Karachi Sheraton looking forward to a hot bath, dinner and blissful sleep.

 

 the Karachi Sheraton Hotel

the Karachi Sheraton Hotel

I opened the door ready to flop out … and … lo and behold – bedlam! The whole room had been turned upside down, my suitcases forced open and all my belongings strewn everywhere. My first thoughts were that somebody had forced open my room and tried to rob me but no. Nothing was missing.

 

Angrily I stormed down to Reception and demanded to see the Duty Manager, an affable man with a kind face who listened sympathetically and then shrugged his shoulders apologetically.

 

“We’re sorry” he said, “but there is nothing we can do. It’s beyond our control. Security you know”. Not hotel security but something called National Security.

 

“But why?” I asked perplexed. Again he shrugged his shoulders.

 

“Who knows? They might have been suspicious. Maybe it’s your face ….”

 

Over a two-week period we progressed to Mumbai and spent a relaxing and blissful week at the Taj Mahal (more recently a venue for terrorist atrocities) where we carried out interviews. In my free-time I made a lot of purchases, particularly brass ornaments and colourful handmade cotton dresses for my wife.

 

Packing everything into my two suitcases proved an impossible task, like threading a camel through the eye of a needle. I packed and unpacked several times, juxtapositioning the items again and again and finally fitted and squashed everything in.

 

The flight back was from Santacruz Airport in Mumbai, a TWA flight – the American airline proving most prone to hijacks. The return route to Malta was via Tel Aviv, Rome and then Malta.

 

Santacruz teemed with people, a veritable carpet of human movement and lengthy delays because of security screening. When it came to my turn I was confronted by an enormous military-looking Sikh, resplendent in red tunic and white turban with fiercely twirled black moustaches and a look so stern it would have frozen melted butter. People swarmed around us – confusion paramount.

 

He looked me directly in the eyes, pointed at my two suitcases with his baton and barked “take everything out and place them all there”. The baton pointed to a faded strip of carpet on the floor.

 

“But…” I said meekly. The look in his eyes spoke for itself…but me no buts…!

 

And so, out came all the stuff as I undid hours of careful packing. He poked one or two things with his baton and with a satisfied look in his eyes barked “you can pack everything up again and proceed”. I will not go into the volume of cursing that was coarsing through my mind.

 

We duly landed at Tel Aviv Airport and the moment the aircraft came to a standstill a dozen or so armed commandos sprang aboard.

 

“Everybody is to remain seated at all times. Passengers disembarking are to show themselves”. A few hands went up and they duly disembarked one by one after being frisked, prodded and poked.

 

One commando had stationed himself directly in the aisle, close to me and as it happened, at that moment I had an urgent call of nature. I knew one could not use toilet facilities when the aircraft was grounded but the previous night’s final curry dinner was having its effect.

 

“I need to use the toilet”.

 

“No”.

 

“But it’s urgent. I really need to go”.

 

“Do it in your seat”.

 

The next half hour was excruciating until all transactions were completed. Then the commandos fell back and out one by one never turning their backs on the passengers and the aircraft was airbound again – and a sudden unholy rush to the toilet by yours truly.

 

A few years later a friend and I decided on a foolish escapade. I was working with an Insurance Broking company which had a tie-up with the then national cargo shipping line Sea Malta. This gave us the privilege of free travel depending on bunk availability. We planned to go from Malta to Reggio Calabria (which is in the toe part of Italy, almost opposite the Sicilian town of Messina, both towns notorious for Mafia activities).

 

The journey was 14 hours at sea to reach Reggio, four or five hours in Reggio for lunch and then a 14-hour journey back – as I said, a really foolish escapade.

 

We duly arrived at Reggio and disembarked – without any luggage of course – on the wharf. There were no officials around, no customs or police. The exit gate was about 200 metres away.

 

“What do we do now?” I asked my friend who had been on this trip before.

 

“We just walk out. They never stop anybody here”.

 

“But what about customs and passport control?”

 

“Never happens. Let’s walk”.

 

We moved towards the exit gate. Suddenly we heard the frantic shrills of a whistle and saw a wildly gesticulating uniformed official sprinting towards us.

 

“Alt, alt!”

 

He completely ignored my friend and fronted me and asked for my passport. Having leafed through it he made me take off my jacket, frisked it and asked me to show him everything in all my pockets before dismissing us with an indifferent wave.

 

“Why me?” I asked my friend angrily.

 

He shrugged. “They never stop anybody here. You’re the exception. It must be your face mate…”

 

Many years later I was in England with my close friend Glyn Genin who at the time was Picture Editor of the Financial Times Group, including the FT and The Economist. We drove to Bristol because the next morning he had to shoot some pictures in Cardiff and Bridgend.

 

It was a time when the Turks had invaded and grabbed a substantial part of Cyprus. We decided to visit a Greek Cypriot restaurant that had been recommended to him.

 

As soon as we entered I was given unpleasant looks by the waiters and these persisted when we were seated. I do not speak or understand Greek but they were talking to each other and suspiciously looking and gesturing in my direction. I felt ill at ease.

 

Finally, one came to our table and said “Why you come to this restaurant? Why you don’t go to a Turkish restaurant?”. They had mistaken me for a Turk or a Turkish Cypriot.

 

Luckily I had my Maltese passport and patiently I explained I was not Turkish but Maltese – and that was the magic word. Suddenly we became like long, lost brothers. The atmosphere relaxed and I was addressed as “my friend”. We gorged on some freebie appetisers and received a complimentary bottle of Greek Cypriot brandy which we polished off and the evening was rounded off with Zorba the Greek dancing and yes, broken plates!

 

Years later still I was on a Caribbean cruise with my wife ‘Tilde and daughter Claire and we berthed at Cozumel (Mexico) for a few hours. We went souvenir hunting and I set my sights on a beautiful onyx chess set and board which was exorbitantly priced.

 

In Mediterranean fashion I offered half the price.

 

The shopkeeper looked at me angrily and kicked off.

 

“You are from Israel no? You are a Jew and that is what Jews do – they want everything for free. You have ruined the world. Look what Israel are doing in Palestine – yes, you are a Jew”.

 

I offered half the price again. My wife nudged me.

 

“Tell him we are not Jewish”.

 

“Leave it” I said as he continued to rant about Jews and Israel. His price gradually began to come down and down and I continued to insist on half price and eventually clinched the deal at half price.

 

We shook hands and as I was about to move off I said “by the way, I am not Jewish, I am from Malta in the Mediterranean”.

 

“Malta – I don’t know Malta. What is Malta?” he spluttered. “No, you are a Jew. Goodbye”.

 

However, I do know of an incident where a face turned out to be a positive asset. My late father was an officer in the British Royal Air Force and at the height of the EOKA rebellion for Cypriot independence he was posted to RAF Akrotiri in preparation for the invasion of the Suez Canal as he was a specialist supply officer.

 

All personnel were repeatedly instructed to be on their guard and to be alert, not to leave the base and if needing to go into Akrotiri not to go alone but always accompanied.

 

At the time, the Maltese Socialist Prime Minister Dom Mintoff was in power and he supported both Archbishop Makarios (Cyprus) and Gamal Abdul Nassar (Egypt) in their calls for independence. He was also a personal friend of theirs. EOKA attacks on British personnel were frequent and back in England we were terribly worried about his safety.

 

Although in RAF uniform, my father’s Mediterranean facial characteristics and mannerisms clearly showed he was not actually British.

 

A few days after his arrival, he was approached by a Cypriot civilian who told him he had nothing to worry about. “They know you are not really British. You are Maltese and you are our brother. Your safety is assured – you will have no trouble. You can go wherever you want”.

 

And my father did, going fishing every afternoon and going into Akrotiri frequently to avoid NAAFI food and eat Mediterranean food. At the end of his term of duty he returned safely to us.

 

There is something to be said for Mediterranean fraternity after all!

 

ALBERT FENECH

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Albert Fenech

Born in 1946, Albert Fenech’s family took up UK residence in 1954 where he spent his boyhood and youth before temporarily returning to Malta between 1957 and 1959 and then coming back to Malta permanently in 1965. He spent eight years as a full-time journalist with “The Times of Malta” before taking up a career in HR Management but still retained his roots by actively pursuing freelance journalism and broadcasting for various media outlets covering social issues, current affairs, sports and travel.